The Evolution Of Little Beach: From Marshland To Multi-million Dollar Enclave Threatened By Erosion

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Erosion , Local History

This aerial photograph shows the sparse development of the northern section of Little Beach in 1964. Chatham Light can be seen at the upper left, with the intersection of Morris Island and Little Beach roads on the lower right. COURTESY OF SPENCER KENNARD 

First of two parts

CHATHAM – Two years ago, the Little Beach area experienced the worst flooding it had seen in 30 years, maybe longer. Sandbag walls were breached, houses were inundated, and boats plied the submerged streets rescuing residents.

With warnings that climate change and sea level rise will only make conditions worse, property owners are already throwing up sandbags to stanch the flooding that will surely happen again, if not this winter then in the near future.

For much of the town's history, the area known as Little Beach was little more than a marshy lowland on the way to Monomoy. Until the early 20th century, the area immediately south of Chatham Lighthouse had no more than a handful of houses and was apparently seen as having little value. For some time it was even used as a town dump.

Today, the area between the lighthouse and Morris Island holds more than 80 homes—and one marina—together worth well over $100 million. Many of the homes lie on reclaimed land created from sand dredged from Stage Harbor in the 1950s, and all of them are at perilously low elevations, just a few feet above sea level. As the protection once afforded by North Beach, and later South Beach, washes away and reshapes the shoreline, property owners and town officials are scrambling for a viable way to keep the sea at bay.

Like many low-lying areas along the east coast, it can be argued that much of Little Beach should never have been developed. The area has flooded numerous times, from hurricanes that pushed water from the south, through Stage Harbor, and from nor'easters that overtopped the barrier beach and the low dunes that lie along the eastern shore. Since the 1987 break in North Beach, Little Beach has been changing, undergoing periodic erosion and a reshaping of its coast. While the hurricanes of the 1940s and '50s threatened modest summer cottages, the more recent storms and those in the future, exacerbated by climate change, target expensive waterfront homes, and also could cut off the only mainland access to other, even more expensive properties on Morris and Stage islands.

The spit that extends south from the cliffs at the lighthouse all the way to Monomoy is part of the Outer Cape's barrier beach system. Getting to Monomoy by land, when it was connected to the mainland, required passing along Little Beach, but it wasn't until 1893 that the town put in a proper road. Originally called Beach Hotel Road, it allowed land access to the Chatham Beach Hotel, which was built on Monomoy in 1891. The road later became parts of Morris Island and Little Beach roads.

Before the road, there were few houses on the lowland between water to the east and the marsh to the west. The Old Reynolds House was built in the late 1700s just south of the lighthouse bluff, according to Chatham Historical Commission records. The commission's records note two other houses built in the early 1800s, the Joshua Nickerson House, and a house at 63 Morris Island Rd. referred to in the records as “Zenia.” All three were clustered just south of the lighthouse bluff near what is now Dune Drive.

On the Chatham map in the 1858 Barnstable County Atlas, most of the Little Beach is shown as marsh. There are three houses south of the lighthouse, identified as the domiciles of C. Higgins, S. Hammond, and B. Rogers. Morris Island is connected to Little Beach—again, much of that land bridge is shown as marsh—and North Beach lies to the east.

Later maps show many more homes in the area, although much of west side of Little Beach continues to be shown as marsh. In a 1940s United States Geological Survey map, there are two clusters of houses. About a half dozen lie immediately south of the lighthouse, off what is now Morris Island Road. A bit farther along the road heading toward what was by then a break between Little Beach and Morris Island are another 15 or so homes, most along what we now know as Little Beach and Seagull roads. Morris Island and Monomoy are connected, and the narrow southern tip of North Beach is just a bit south of Little Beach.

This 1940 USGS map shows the inlet between Chatham Harbor and Stage Harbor, approximately in the location of Outermost Harbor Marine. In 1957 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged Stage Harbor and used the sand to build the Morris Island causeway to the west of the spit north from Morris Island. 

This 1940 USGS map shows the inlet between Chatham Harbor and Stage Harbor, approximately in the location of Outermost Harbor Marine. In 1957 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged Stage Harbor and used the sand to build the Morris Island causeway to the west of the spit north from Morris Island. 

A revised USGS map dated 1947 adds another five homes even farther along Seagull Road.

Many of those homes were built by the Horne family. Robert Wright Horne bought 80 acres of land in the late 1920s for $5,000, according to a family member. The family built cottages that were rented during the summer and also sold some house lots. More cottages were built later, the result of a long chain of events that involved Monomoy, the Cape Cod National Seashore, and the filling in of Stage Harbor.

Monomoy's remoteness and lack of access kept the island isolated. While it was periodically connected to the mainland via Morris Island, just as often it was separated water, sometimes shallow enough to easily cross at low tide, other times not. At one time it hosted a small community known as Whitewash Village, but the ever-changing nature of the barrier beach led to the deep-water harbor around which the village grew, the Powder Hole, shoaling and eventually closing in. Monomoy became the domain of duck hunters, and many hunting camps eventually became beach camps similar to those that once dotted North Beach. Just before World War II, the island was taken over by the federal government and used as a bombing range. In 1944 the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge was established.

Changes to the barrier beach in the late 1800s led to a breach between Morris Island and Little Beach, approximately where Outermost Harbor Marine is located today. Stage Harbor began filling with sand. A timber dike was built in 1905 to try to stem the flow of sand (remnants of the east end can be seen at low tide today). As South Beach continued to break up, a sand dike was built in 1934, but a 1940 winter storm caused a permanent breach. A bridge replaced the sand dike but that was destroyed in the hurricane of 1944. By then water was flowing into Stage Harbor from the harbor, not only making land access to Monomoy nearly impossible but also shoaling the harbor.

William “Wick” Doggett, whose family bought a home on Little Beach in 1943, recalls beach buggies parked near the breach; his brother Gene drove people down to Monomoy to fish.

“At a good low tide, you could sneak a beach buggy, or some kind of Ford or whatever, over onto Morris Island,” he said. At every high tide, water from the ocean swept sand into Stage Harbor, he added.

Selectmen asked the Army Corps of Engineers for help in 1950, and also set up a town committee to study the problem. At high tide there was enough water for boats to pass between Chatham Harbor and Stage Harbor. While the Army Corps recommended the construction of a dike, there were no federal funds available; the town turned to private funding to finance a study. Several different plans were developed, some of which involved maintaining a channel between Chatham Harbor and Stage Harbor, which many boaters wanted, as it avoided the long trip around Monomoy; another plan called for a timber bulkhead.

According to Douglas Doe's 1995 master's thesis “The Road to Monomoy: Chatham, Massachusetts and the Cape Cod National Seashore,” none of the studies mentioned a road to Monomoy, but Edwin Eldredge, a selectman and member of the cut-through committee, pushed for one. His was not an unpopular position, not only among those who wanted access to Monomoy for fishing and hunting, but also among those interested in developing Morris and Stage Islands. Many, however, especially summer residents of the Little Beach area, objected, fearing a large influx of traffic.

Meanwhile, the state was eyeing the northern portion of Monomoy as a state beach, and by the late 1950s, the Cape Cod National Seashore was in its infant stages, and initially included Monomoy and Morris and Stage Islands.

In 1953, town meeting authorized a dike or causeway based on a Massachusetts Department of Public Works plan, which called for a large earthen dike across the opening to Stage Harbor. The final design had input from Robert Horne and skirted portions of the marsh that he wanted to develop. The design also expanded Stage Harbor by dredging sand that would be used to create the causeway. According to Doe, there was considerable opposition from boaters, and concern for what a road would do to the relatively pristine islands, not least of which was their development. Eldredge argued that the dike would restore the traditional fishing and hunting activities on Monomoy that had suffered due to the break.

The dike was built in 1957 by the Army Corps of Engineers, at a cost of $436,240, according to Doe. Some 240,000 of dredged sand from Stage Harbor formed the foundation of the causeway and also filled in much of the Little Beach marsh and wetlands. That led directly to the development of Morris and Stage Islands, but both, along with Monomoy, were excluded from the Cape Cod National Seashore. The Hornes developed portions of the marsh filled from sand dredged from the harbor, and in the 1960s Horne's Marina was established where the breach between Stage Harbor and Chatham Harbor previously existed.

When he spent summers growing up on Little Beach, “there wasn't any Morris Island Road,” Doggett said. After the hurricanes and the construction of the causeway, the area remained stable until the 1987 break in North Beach across from the lighthouse. Subsequent erosion in 1991 led to a lengthy study of ways to protect the shoreline, but South Beach ended up connecting to the mainland just south of Lighthouse Beach, protecting Little Beach from the ocean as it had in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There was no significant flooding between 1991 and 2018, when a series of nor'easters sent water deep into the Little Beach area, in the vicinity of the old cut through to Stage Harbor.

Prior to the break there was about 220 feet of beach between Doggett's front door and the harbor. That narrowed precipitously in the early 1990s, but today there is about 360 feet between the house and a marsh that has developed east of the norther part of Little Beach, he said. But that marsh is basically a “flat table” that floods on extreme high tides, which won't provide much protection in the event of a major storm. In the aftermath of the Fool's Cut in 2017, South Beach continues to break apart, and today is little more than a serious of shoals offering little storm protection.

Despite the present situation, Doggett is optimistic, noting that his house has existed since the 1920s. “Maybe it might stay,” he said. “The reports say this is still a very active area. It's part of this moving picture that we have here.”

Next week: Current Little Beach property owners explore ways to save their properties.

Many of the historical details in this story are drawn from Douglas Doe's 1995 master's thesis “The Road to Monomoy: Chatham, Massachusetts and the Cape Cod National Seashore.”

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